In Defense Of Sugar?
REVIEWING THE ANTI ANTI-SUGAR ARGUMENT
It’s unfortunate that we must go to war over nutrients, but let’s face it, the mention of sugar is a virtual battle cry for scientists, nutritionists, policymakers and consumers alike. The anti-sugar drum beat is loud and clear, which is precisely why a published paper entitled ‘In Defense of Sugar: A Critique of Diet-Centrism’ caught my attention. A basic tenet of the sugar defense presented is that:
“…if we do not eat enough sugar or sugar-polymers, or our bodies do not produce enough sugar, we die.”
Ok, so off the top we’re talking death. I keep reading...
“If you supplement the malnourished children’s diet with kale and quinoa, your patients will die. If you supplement their diet with SSBs or some other form of ‘added sugars’, your patients may recover. If ‘healthy’ is defined at a minimum as maintaining basic vital functions and survival, in this context SSBs are healthier than organic, sustainably and locally-grown kale and quinoa.”
Now we’re talking vital functions and survival - so again, we’re talking death. Hefty stuff.
The author goes on to aptly point out that sugar and ‘sugar-polymers’ are nutritive constituents of many foods like dairy, fruit, honey, rice, potatoes and other cereal grains, as well as being found in beverages like fruit juices and SSBs (that’s shorthand for sugar sweetened beverages, which is basically code for soda). In total, these sources account for 45-70% of total energy intake globally, according to the paper. If you consider the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range or AMDR for carbohydrates is 45-65% of calories, then those intake percents are not unreasonable, roughly speaking.
Trendy foods bashing aside, the kale and quinoa example from the quote above drives home what I believe is the key argument of the article. Namely, that sugar intake and the effects of such are highly, if not entirely, dependent on the individual. It’s true that individual metabolic factors like fasting blood glucose and insulin sensitivity will be major determinants in how one person metabolizes a handful of jelly beans or a cup of red quinoa compared to the next.
The paper goes on to posit that “our present state of poor metabolic health is not because our diets are unhealthy or that we consume sugars, it is because we are physically inactive.” Hold up. Are we to believe that only exercise matters, not diet at all? Apparently so.
The anti anti-sugar argument presented wraps up with the assertion that ‘diet-centrism’ has led us all astray. In other words, the ideas of healthy/unhealthy, good/bad ingredients and toxic substances requiring detoxification are all arguably bogus. Such dichotomous categorizations are directly dependent on individual physiology and metabolic differences to the degree that what’s healthy for me is not healthy for you. Or so goes the argument.
SOME SWEET TAKEAWAYS
After reading the entire paper, I’m not sure if I am reading a pro-sugar argument or actually more of a pro-personalized nutrition one, though the latter was not mentioned in the paper. Here’s what I’m left thinking.
Diet-Centrism is a Real Thing: No doubt we are living in times of so-called ‘diet-centrism’ which ultimately pits ingredients and dietary choices against one another in a dietary landscape of good and evil. Situations where a single packaged food must be deemed ‘healthy’ or not become arguably meaningless because we must 1) consider the individual and 2) consider the total diet of that individual. Phew, what a tenuous landscape for food product developers, food entrepreneurs, food policymakers and consumers alike.
Sugar is Not an Essential Nutrient: Sorry friends, but sugar is not an essential nutrient. Yes, death will ensue if the body can not or will not break down foods and beverages into glucose for fuel for whatever reason, but this does not mean you must consume pure sugar or die…the human body can metabolize food and beverages after all!
Consider the Sugar Chain: Sugar usually indicates the white granulated stuff on the tabletop, while sugars are all those ‘sugar-polymers’ so to speak. The further up the chain, the better - meaning sugar water is mere calories whereas foods or beverages which contain naturally-occurring sugars and longer chain polymers, such as grains or dairy, typically bring along useful nutrients like fiber, calcium and/or protein. That’s why food and beverage options which emphasize the latter are usually best for the average adult trying to eat healthy-ish. Sure the digestion of sugar and various sugars varies by the individual thanks to variance in things like insulin sensitivity and resting blood glucose. However, beyond the extremes of say malnourished children and ultra distance runners, most of live in the -ish zone of health, which is why most of us are well-served to consume higher up the sugar chain.
Diet & Physical Activity are Linked: Caloric balance is both individual and dynamic. The reality is it may take me an entire hour of walking on the treadmill to burn off that chocolate mega muffin I could not resist, while the next person jogs for half that time and the next foregoes the muffin altogether. Meanwhile, we’re all weight stable for now. The point here is that to consider calories in and calories out independently is short-sighted and pointlessly reductionist. This strikes me as definitely a case where it’s best to consider the sum of the parts in order to better understand the whole.
THE CONSUMER LOOK AHEAD
I rather like that this paper boldly takes a contrarian viewpoint to make us stop and think more critically about what we hold as untouchable nutrition truths. Let’s not forget the vilification of dietary fat after all. It’s presently coming full circle and fueling our current obsession with coconut oil, avocados, and buttered-up coffee to name a few. Of course, unlike the u-turn on fat, I don’t think sugar will magically fall into dietary favor any time soon…ok, ever.
The net is we eat too much of the white stuff to the tune of 66 pounds per person per year in the U.S. of added or ‘free’ sugars. Let’s not forget the World Health Organization dropped it’s recommendations on free sugars from 10% to no more than 5% of total diet. That’s about 25 grams or 6 teaspoons a day. Go looking for products which fit into that constraint, and it becomes readily apparent how far off we are in making adherence an easy proposition for consumers.
Sugar has been and will continue to be in the bulls eye. The latest consumer research suggests 71% of U.S. consumers read the label for sugar content, and 27% want products to taste less sweet. Couple that with Gen Z developments on their more moderated approach to sweetness and times are certainly changing. Who knows, maybe the swings between ingredient offense and defense will sort themselves out into a non-issue on the sugar front one day. Wishful thinking I know.